Online education expanding, awaits innovation

Thu Oct 1, 2009 11:06am EDT
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By Andrew Stern

CHICAGO (Reuters) - When Janice Barnwell decided to boost her career by obtaining a master's degree in business, the working mother chose an online university because of the convenience and the low cost.

The 44-year-old's educational experience exceeded her expectations, and her new employer paid for her to take four more courses online to sharpen her skills.

"At first I was very intimidated (by taking classes remotely). It's something I've never done," said Barnwell, who works as a wealth management liaison. "But it quickly changed for me because the interaction I had online with my classmates and professors felt real."

The online education sector grew 13 percent last year and had been growing at about 20 percent in previous years. Nearly one in four students take at least some college courses online, up from one in 10 in 2002. Two million students, most older than the traditional 18-22 year-old undergraduates, take all their courses online and two million more take one or more online course.

President Barack Obama pledged $500 million for online courses and materials as part of a multi-pronged plan aimed at expanding access to college.

Twenty-nine percent of U.S. adults have a college degree, fewer than in many other industrialized nations. Only about 40 percent of Americans who start college graduate. The price of higher education, which rises by an average of 8 percent a year, contributes to the high dropout rate.

"All along that education pipeline, too many people ... are slipping through the cracks. It's not only heartbreaking for those students; it's a loss for our economy and our country," Obama said in a recent speech.

Jeff Conlon, chief executive of Kaplan Higher Education with some 59,000 online students, said traditional colleges could not meet Obama's goals for higher education.   Continued...